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When it's not the language of love

Nikiwe Bikitsha

Young women need to realise when the language of love turns into the language of control, writes Nikiwe Bikitsha.

Oscr Pistorius with his late girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. (Gallo)

Boo and baba. These are just two of the terms of endearment that Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp had used for each other during their three-month tempestuous relationship. It has been amusing to hear stoic men such as prosecutor Gerrie Nel and defence advocate Barry Roux repeatedly utter these words awkwardly as they combed through the WhatsApp and email exchanges of the two.

There were also the incessant "mwahs" exchanged, which Roux insisted on reading out loud to try and convince us their relationship was a loving one and that Oscar was so besotted with Reeva that he was always sending her virtual kisses. That's love for you in the time of emoticons, acronyms, and smileys.

It is a huge relief though that it appears the two wrote to each in full sentences, with proper punctuation, and didn't fall prey to the annoying text language of the day.

"What does that mean?" Both Nel and Roux have been heard asking in pained tones at the appearance of terms like "baba, boo and xxx".

As a diverse country that is a melting pot of languages and culture, the meaning is often far more complex and multidimensional. In the case of Steenkamp and Pistorius, we know that "baba" is the Afrikaans word for baby. That term of reference is not unusual between love birds. It's the same in isiXhosa. Now, if you've dated a man or woman from the Eastern Cape, you know for sure that that's a common part of the love lexicon. It can be used for girl or boyfriend. In isiZulu however, the word means father. In the romantic love stakes, it could only be used as a sign of deference to the man of the house if your background and upbringing were that way inclined.

According to the online Urban Dictionary, "boo" is derived from the French word "beau", which means beautiful. In 18th century England it referred to a male admirer. It made its way into Afro-Caribbean language most likely through the colonisation of those islands. In modern day urban language and culture it now means girl or boy friend. Like many Americanisms, it has been made popular through music and movies. Here in the south, we too have imbibed it whole, but it is mostly used by young people.

But outside of its colloquial and mostly American use, "boo", according to the Oxford English dictionary, means two things. Firstly it means to scare or surprise someone. Secondly it is used as a term to show disapproval, as in "the politician was booed at the stadium".

To me the word conjures up one of the most mysterious and terrifying literary characters of all time – Boo Radley. In Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Boo Radley, although we don't see him until the end of the story, haunts us throughout. Through the descriptions of the children Scout, Jem and Dill, we sense him, but can't quite make up our minds whether he is man or monster. As a disabled recluse who never steps outside his house, he fires up the children's imagination as to whom exactly he might be – but they are terrified of him.

In her WhatsApp messages to Oscar, Reeva admits to being scared of him sometimes so it remains to be seen whether Oscar was her boo as in her love, or boo as in she was scared of him like the children were scared of Boo Radley..

Beyond the language which may seem saccharine in the virtual world, it is how he treats you in the real world that matters most, and that is what is frightening about the details of what has emerged about their relationship so far.

There is something disconcerting about the constant criticism Pistorius levelled at his girlfriend. Telling her not to chew gum, how to speak, who to speak to and when, accusations that she was flirting with other men. Surely these are the early signs of someone who is likely to be controlling? 

Young women really need to be far more alert to these warning signs of something that won't end well. If anything, the intimate exchanges of the two have allowed us to examine that and talk about it openly. I'm not suggesting that Pistorius killed Steenkamp in a fit of rage – that's still to be decided. But from both Steenkamp's messages and the testimony from Pistorius's ex-girlfriend Samantha Taylor, we know he had a nasty streak and a tendency to scream.

Round about then, in any relationship, is when you should "holler" at your "boo" and call it quits

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